Bad Santa 2: Billy Bob Thornton Loves the Character

The acting great talks putting on the red suit again for Bad Santa 2, his success on TV with Fargo and Goliath, and more...

Billy Bob Thornton has never played the same character twice — until now. In Bad Santa 2, he once again dons the identity of the dissolute, drunken, self-loathing department store Santa and safecracker Willie Soke, this time roped into knocking over a Chicago charity on Christmas Eve by his old and still shady partner Marcus (Tony Cox).

Still trailing loyally behind Willie like a twisted puppy dog is “the kid,” Thurman Merman (Brett Kelly), who is now an adult but still has a unique perspective on the world. And the movie introduces two new characters: the charity’s buttoned-up but sexually rambunctious director (Christina Hendricks) and Willie’s mother, Sunny (Kathy Bates), whose own low standards of what it means to be a decent human being make her son look like a shining example of ethics and morality.

Bad Santa 2 follows in the footsteps of the 2003 cult classic, a raunchy, potty-mouthed comedy of questionable taste with a heart of gold — or least gold paint — at its core. As for its star, Billy Bob Thornton has too many credits to list, but his standout performances in movies like Sling Blade (which he also directed), Monster’s Ball, One False Move, Friday Night Lights and the first Bad Santa, as well as recent TV excursions like Fargo and Goliath, speak for themselves. It was Den of Geek’s pleasure to speak with this gifted character actor recently in Los Angeles.

You haven’t played the same character twice before. What made Bad Santa the one?

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Billy Bob Thornton:¬†Generally dramas aren’t as made for sequels as comedies are. We always knew we’d make a sequel. We didn’t know when. We knew we weren’t going to do it within the first couple years. Then there was some studio red tape to get through, because the studio changed hands a couple of times and everything. Once all that got ironed out, it took us three or four years to get the right story. We went through several drafts of different ideas, story ideas. We knew we would do it if we got the right one. In other words, we didn’t just want to throw a sequel out there and make it broader than the first one, and that’s what usually the natural progression is.

This one has a more independent film feel than the first one did in a lot of ways. It’s just one of those characters that, first of all, people wanted it. The fans wanted it, and if they tell you that, then you’ve got to listen. It’s absolutely a character I love playing. I mean, who wouldn’t? It’s just fun to do. Also, I think we wanted to show a slightly deeper level of who the character was and where he came from. Then you have the mother character. Then all of a sudden, you say okay, this is a wounded child who doesn’t want to love anything, because he’s afraid he’ll destroy it. You know what I mean? He sees himself in this poor Thurman Merman. He’s somebody who just self-medicates because he actually does still have hope, which is probably the bane of his existence.

It’s like, “I wish I could just lay down and die, but the fact is, is I think there is something.” In this case that is the Christmas spirit in Willie’s mind — that yeah, maybe the kid’s all right, but he’s so afraid to live life because it’s so wounded.

He clings to some sort of humanity, unlike his mother.

Yeah, exactly.

Do you remember some of the other ideas that were tossed around? Was the mother always involved in some of the early stories?

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It was going to be the father, originally. But we felt that the father would be just like having two Willies. It would just be too close. That way if you make it the woman, it separates it a little more, and also the boy wanting his mother’s love, and that kind of thing. Whereas, if it was the old man, it’s like pals that hate each other now. There was one story that took place in Mexico that had to do with an orphanage and all this stuff. We went through that for one. It was very good. At the end of the day, I think this story was just a little stronger. Everybody felt that they wanted to this time put it in an actual Christmas Eve setting, with the snow and the whole thing. Whereas the Mexico version would have been more like when did in Arizona. That came into play also.

But now you have a couple of ideas around if there’s a clamoring for Bad Santa 3 somewhere down the line.

Yeah, we got a couple of ideas, yeah we do. Who knows if we’ll every do another one, but if we did, we do have a couple of ideas.

Obviously, some of the original cast members are not with us any more (note: John Ritter and Bernie Mac have both passed on), but was it important that at least some of band get back together, like Tony and Brett?

Oh absolutely. Let’s do the ZZ Top of the movie, we could go there. I thought that we would have Marcus in some form, but maybe not too much. There was going to be a new place in this story, and I figured Marcus might come into it somewhere. There was talk of not having the kid at all, and I protested a lot over that. I said, “No.” I said, “You don’t understand. This is not just Bad Santa. Bad Santa’s not a bad Santa without Marcus and then the kid. That’s just not right. You absolutely have to have him.” Thank goodness cooler heads prevailed, and it worked out the way it did.

Did you stay in touch with those guys over the years?

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Yeah, we saw them a few times over the years. Brett went to college, and I was playing there in my band in Vancouver when he as about 16 or so. Then his family came out and saw us. A little harder to see him, because he is up in Vancouver. Tony I’ve seen over the years. He’d drop by every now and then. We had a couple of mutual friends. Something about wanting the three of us to get together, it was just one of those things. We just fell right back into it. It’s the same old thing. Tony is so good at cussing me out. I just love it. It makes me laugh.

Do people often come up to you on the street quoting lines at you all the time?

Oh, sure.

It’s one of the more quotable movies of the last 15 years.

Yeah, a lot of quotes from that movie. Probably that and Sling Blade I get the most quotes from, I would imagine. There’s some other movies that have one or two, but this one has a lot of them.

What did Kathy bring to the mix? You and Tony and Brett had that chemistry already but how did Kathy add to that and get into the spirit of what you guys were doing?

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Well I think a lot of it is that Kathy played it straight, which I try to do too. You try to not go for humor. People don’t always know that. We played it just as if we were that mother and son who had this vile relationship. Like I said, I think having the mother as opposed to a father really works better. You get to see a boy with his mother. In reality Kathy’s only eight years, nine years older, something like that, so we decided that she had Willie when she was 13, which makes it good anyway. Of course she did!

Kathy and I worked together 20 years ago in Primary Colors, but we didn’t have much with each other in that movie. It was real good to be around her. She’s a lovely woman and all. Christina (Hendricks), also. Very, very nice person. I guess she filled the Lauren Graham part from the first movie. We missed Lauren, just because she was so great to be around too, and that relationship so cool. But we would have been forced to have her in the movie. We would have had to invent something that wasn’t that plausible to have her in it.

In addition to this, you have a TV show out now, Goliath, on Amazon. You did Fargo. Is TV opening up a lot of new doors for you? Perhaps also in terms of directing again?

Absolutely, that’s not a question, sure. I don’t know about directing. Maybe. I mean, let’s say I created something for TV maybe, and wanted to do the pilot just to set the tone. I can see myself doing that. I think as a film director, I’m pretty much over, because I mean, I’ve never had a successful movie as director except for Sling Blade. I think the movies that I write and direct for the movie theater are not the kind of movies that are really all at the top of the list that people want to see, because I’m influenced by Southern novelists and people like Steinbeck, and that kind of thing. I just don’t think that’s the movie audience any more. Probably television is a better place for it.

Before we go, I know you’re a baseball fan, what did you think of the Cubs winning it all?

Well, I’m a Cardinals fan, we’re rivals.

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I know that.

But yeah, huge. God bless them. It’s been so long, and you got to tip your hat to them. It’s been such a long road for them, and Cubs fans have just been desperate for all these years. Even though they’re our biggest rival, you still have to tip your hat to them.

Bad Santa 2 is out in theaters tomorrow (Wednesday, November 23).

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